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"Treasures of the Empfindsamkeit"

Carole Cerasi, clavichord

rec: Nov 11 - 13, 2013, East Clandon (Surrey), Hatchlands Park
Metronome - MET CD 1091 (© 2014) (71'20")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Freye Fantasie in f sharp minor 'C.P.E. Bachs Empfindungen' (Wq 67 / H 300); L'Aly Rupalich (Wq 117,27 / H 95); La Stahl (Wq 117,25 / H 94); Sonata in e minor (Wq 52,6 / H 129) [1]; Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Sonata in c minor (H XVI,20); Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Adagio in b minor (KV 540); Johann Gottfried MÜTHEL (1728-1788): Arioso II mit 12 Variationen in c minor

Source: [1] Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Zweyte Fortsetzung von Sechs Sonaten fürs Clavier, 1763

The clavichord is "the simplest and at the same time the most subtle and expressive of those whose sound is produced by strings rather than by pipes", according to New Grove. Today it is almost exclusively associated with music from the mid-18th century, the period known as the Empfindsamkeit of which Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the main representatives. However, the first appearance of the name clavichord dates from 1404. During the renaissance period the instrument became quite popular across Europe, but in the course of the 16th century was mainly used in Germany, Scandinavia and on the Iberian peninsula.

Towards the end of the 17th century there were some changes in the instrument's construction which contributed to its popularity after the turn of the century. Part of the appreciation was due to the fact that it allowed the performer to play in a 'singing style'. As New Grove says: "This emphasis on singing style, with dynamic nuance explicitly demanded, heralds the period in which the clavichord began to have a literature of its own and in which large clavichords were first made."

That aspect is demonstrated on this disc which documents music which is - if not explicitly written for - pre-eminently suitable to be played at the clavichord. It is no surprise that composers of the Empfindsamkeit - which can be translated as 'sensibility' - were particularly attracted to the clavichord. Whereas, as Johann Mattheson wrote, the harpsichord was always equally loud and resonant, the clavichord allowed the player to influence the sound through the way he touched the keys. The very fine nuances in dynamics, and not to forget the possibility to create a kind of vibrato, known in German as Bebung, was exactly what they were looking for. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the composers who specifically stated the importance of emotion. In his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen he insisted that one should "play from the soul, not like a trained bird".

The style of the Empfindsamkeit is sometimes considered 'pre-romantic'. There is some truth in that statement but it could easily lead to some misunderstanding. The compositions which reflect the features of this style are not without structure. They often give the impression of being improvised - and in many cases they may have been created as such in the first place - but they are cleverly constructed according to a certain plan. Tim Roberts, in his liner-notes to the present disc, rightly characterises it as "composed spontaneity".

The opening piece of this disc, the Freye Fantasie, is a telling example. It is one of C.P.E. Bach's most famous keyboard works, often considered the most eloquent example of what the style of the Empfindsamkeit is about. It was his last keyboard work and is a sampling of emotions, which follow each other in quick succession and seemingly at random. However, it has two themes which regularly return and keep the piece together. The emotion is calculated and regulated. After al, the age of the Empfindsamkeit is also the age of Reason. We also should not exaggerate the modernity of this style. Emotion always played a role in music, known in the baroque period as Affekt. The difference is that now the performer is expected to feel the emotions himself. As C.P.E. Bach said: "A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved".

His sonatas are mostly quite different. The early ones are often written with the sound of the harpsichord in mind and don't show the features of the Empfindsamkeit to the full. There are also sonatas of a more personal character. It is interesting that different instruments can reveal different layers, so to speak, of a particular piece. I wouldn't consider a performance of the Sonata in e minor on the harpsichord as inappropriate, but here on the clavichord some aspects come to the fore which are bound to be hidden with a harpsichord interpretation. Carole Cerasi is a sensitive player who knows exactly what to do to uncover the hidden truth. She also gives very fine performances of the two character pieces which were clearly written under the impression of the French style. In French harpsichord music of his time character pieces had completely overshadowed the traditional dances. It is not surprising that these pieces were never printed in Bach's lifetime as they probably mostly refer to specific characters from his own milieu.

Johann Gottfried Müthel is a lesser-known composer from C.P.E. Bach's time. He was a very skilled keyboard player who travelled across Germany and met Bach. In 1753 he travelled to Riga where he became Kapellmeister to Baron Otto Hermann von Vietinghoff, the Russian privy councillor, and acted as organist of Riga's principal church. Müthel seems to have been a rather odd character who became increasingly eccentric as he grew older. His output is very small, but substantial. The Arioso II in c minor with twelve variations is an expressive piece. Obviously the theme restricts the freedom of the composer but during the course of the proceedings Müthel treats it with increasing freedom. I have heard a performance of this piece on the fortepiano which is certainly a possibility, but Cerasi's account on the clavichord is much more convincing. It seems to confirm Menno van Delft's opinion - in the liner-notes of his complete recording of Müthel's keyboard works (Teknon, 2004) - that this work was specifically intended for the clavichord. Cerasi seems not to observe all the repeats as her performance is considerably shorter than Van Delft's (16'39" vs 25'40").

One is probably not inclined to associate Haydn and Mozart with the clavichord. However, as it was very widespread it is not very plausible to assume that they didn't play it. It was not an instrument for public performance, but rather for the intimacy of the home. That fits the character of the Adagio in b minor (KV 540); whether Mozart composed it for himself or at the request of a wealthy amateur is not known. The clavichord turns out to be the ideal medium for this piece, especially due to the fine dynamic shades it is able to produce. Haydn's keyboard sonatas are still not among the most frequently performed in our time, but there is a growing appreciation. The Sonata in c minor dates from 1771, and at that time Haydn had not yet embraced the fortepiano. The expressive character of this sonata makes the clavichord a suitable option which is underlined by Cerasi's subtle performance. With her treatment of dynamics she emphasizes the rhetorical aspects of this sonata.

None of these works is unknown, probably with the exception of Müthel's Arioso II. However, only a relatively small portion of C.P.E. Bach's keyboard works are known and Mozart and Haydn are seldom played on the clavichord. That makes this disc an interesting addition to the discography of 18th-century keyboard music. Moreover, Carole Cerasi delivers outstanding performances and plays a splendid historical clavichord by Christian Gotthelf Hoffmann of 1784.

This is a disc not to be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Carole Cerasi

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